‘It’s all about peer pressure’: Hong Kong University Students recall orientation camp experiences

The arrest of two individuals for alleged sexual harassment incidents at orientation camps in the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and the Education University of Hong Kong (EdUHK) in late August and early September has prompted the universities to review current policies and guidelines for orientation activities, aiming to improve moral education.

A poster on HKU campus about sexual harassment. Photo credit: Winsy Lo

Orientation camps, typically referred to as “Ocamps”, are student-led activities that are widely attended by first-year university students (“freshmen”) ahead of the start of term, and usually last from two to seven days. The purpose of these camps is to help freshmen to make new friends or senior students by interacting in a group setting.

Jessica Wong* is one of the freshmen who had an unpleasant experience in engaging a departmental student society Ocamp in The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU).

During the Ocamp, “Campfire dance” is one of the invariable night activities, which requires participants to dance along catchy songs. Those dances were said to express the freshmen’s vitality, but Jessica said she experienced peer pressure when asked to follow certain steps that required intimate physical contact with others, such as thighs touching by male group mates.

“Some of my group mates were also hesitant towards the dance, but it is hard to say no under peer pressure.”

Jessica said that she tried to pretend she couldn’t remember all the steps in order to avoid physical contact with others, but she eventually failed because “no one wants to appear as an outsider during that time.”

“I never knew what should I do when I encounter some borderline sexual harassment.” Jessica added.

During bed time, some organizers would insist male members to enter the girl’s room to play games, then certain members of the group made sexually suggestive remarks or jokes in the conversation, inquiring about personal matters like one’s virginity or sexual experiences.

Causes of Sexual Harassment in Universities

In 15 September, the chairperson of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) Ricky Chu stated in an article that sexual harassment in universities, particularly during Ocamps, is primarily caused by peer pressure as well as the “culture” and “tradition” of these institutions.

He cited examples of activities with sexual connotations being passed down as “tradition” by organizers, leading participants to believe that such activities are unavoidable in university life. Individuals may refrain from speaking out even when they notice misconduct due to peer pressure, exacerbating the problem and perpetuating this cultural norm.

Chu says EOC has long established close partnerships with local universities to foster safe campuses for staff and students through various initiatives, including research, policy recommendations and training. Photo credit: EOC

Vivian Leung Wan-wei, a member of the organization committee for the 2022 departmental Ocamp at the City University of Hong Kong (CityU), shared a similar view with Chu.

She highlighted that certain motivational or rebellious songs are often played during the camp to cultivate an atmosphere that motivates freshmen to push beyond their boundaries and embrace new experiences. But it might also be a source of peer pressure.

Universities Stepping Up to Combat Campus Sexual Harassment

The report “Break the Silence: Territory-Wide Study on Sexual Harassment of University Students in Hong Kong” released by EOC in 2019 found that 23% of university students were sexually harassed within 12 months before the survey, but only 2.5% of students had lodged a complaint with the university after experiencing sexual harassment.

More than half of the students were not aware of their universities’ anti-sexual harassment policy while more than one-fourth said their university’s efforts on promoting anti-sexual harassment was “Insufficient” or “Very Insufficient”.

According to a Legislative Council paper titled “Management of student-led activities in universities and moral education” published on 6 October, the Education Bureau said it had gathered information from Hong Kong’s eight public universities on their existing policies relating to the Ocamps and their plans to enhance the management of such events.

The CityU will require students to complete “online tutorials on preventing sexual harassment” every year.

The EdUHK and PolyU said they had set up, or planned to introduce, committees to enhance the monitoring of Ocamps.

Meanwhile, HKU said only that it “regularly reviews” policies relating to student-led activities.

However, the Orientation Affairs Committee Chairperson for HKUSU session 2021 Eric Lam Lung-fai believed that the policies above are less likely to be feasible and effective.

“It is nearly impossible to monitor the preparation stage of Ocamps when you are going to review different activities laid out from over a hundred proposals,” Eric also pointed out the manpower allocation problem that might arise in the Ocamp task force, it requires a large amount of manpower if they are also planning to monitor the actual situation in the camp.

While there are different views on the combat methods against sexual harassment, university freshmen Jessica thinks the participants are still the ones who need to bear all the pressure when they join the Ocamps.

“The universities should provide more guidelines for both the freshmen and organizational committee members ,” Jessica said, “at least, it takes incredible courage for sexual harassment victims to voice out their experiences.”

Feature image credit: HKU

*Pseudonym used by interviewee’s request

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